The MCU, Marvel’s glorious creation and first brave foray into a cinematic shared universe. It’s long been said that it couldn’t be done, that it would never catch on, that audiences wouldn’t be able to handle multiple overlapping continuities and characters. Because we’re all a bunch of slack-jawed gibbons unable to string two stray thoughts together like that, apparently. Well, Marvel’s Kevin Feige and co. quickly gave the naysayers the biggest middle finger possible and created the largest crossover continuity seen on a screen to date, weaving continuity between film, television, and comic book tie-ins for the avid fan in a seamless multifaceted narrative.
Furthermore, the runaway success of the franchise has now prompted other studios, such as Warner Brothers and Universal Horror (a subdivision of Universal Pictures), to kick-start interlocking franchises with their own properties. Showing just how brilliant a job Marvel have done in spite of a number of their properties remaining in the hands of other studios (Fox and Sony), who are likewise now trying to build cinematic universes in much the same vein with said properties. However, while Marvel’s shared universe ostensibly comes as close to perfect as possible in doing this, looking back over the instalments so far with the benefit of hindsight, it seems that while initially tightly focused on building on itself narratively, that focus is now starting to get lost amid the slight morass of story and characters.
Take Phase One as a starting point, six initial films including the climatic crossover The Avengers that initialised both the starting set of heroes and universe being built overall. It was tight (with the possible exception of Iron Man 2, which just confused the hell out of everybody but did at least introduce Black Widow), it was streamlined with end-credits stingers that tied the movies together into a main if not strictly direct continuity, and then was all interlaced together beautifully under the guiding hand of our Lord and Saviour Joss Whedon, long may he reign in Heaven and on Earth. Then a mid-credits stinger reveals the involvement of Thanos behind Loki’s machinations and things suddenly step up a notch in scope and scale. So far so dandy.
Phase Two then begins with Iron Man 3 and the controversial decision to bring in and simultaneously not bring in The Ten Rings society, depending on your take of Aldrich Killian and Trevor Slattery the actor for the infamous Mandarin. Marvel’s one-shot All Hail the King then spins this round and unveils a very real and thoroughly pissed off Mandarin to be extant and retroactively behind Tony Stark’s kidnapping in Iron Man 1, apparently. So, as far as big behind the scenes villains go, we’ve now got Thanos and The Ten Rings. Fine, that’s not a leap and adds another layer of tension to the overarching myth arc. Thor: The Dark World then comes along and gives us our first noteworthy problem with the story. Another Infinity Stone is introduced: the Aether. Great. Not a problem. And Thanos is not remotely involved or connected to anything that happens in any way, shape, or form. Problem.
Moreover, the Dark Elves’ plan to unmake all of Creation should theoretically put a speed bump or two in Thanos’s own grand plan, whatever it may be. Even if said plan is to destroy everything himself, a) presumably that does not include him too disintegrating in the process and b) assuming that destroying everything is his valentine’s present to Death like in the comics, ostensibly it would entail actually committing total genocide himself, not just taking credit for someone else’s work. Regardless, this is now the second time that Thanos has had no stated involvement in the recovery of an Infinity Stone, something that one would think would be the sole focus of all his time, effort, and attention. Even if it was something like showing The Collector, after The Warriors Three give him the Aether in the mid-credits stinger, talking to The Other – Thanos’s mouthpiece in The Avengers, that would have sufficed.
Or at the start, in maybe having The Other poking around for the Aether before Jane stumbles into it and sets off the plot of the movie. Guardians of the Galaxy showed Ronin and Thanos having struck a prior agreement concerning an Infinity Stone, i.e. Ronin gives Thanos the Infinity Stone and he in turn uses it to destroy Xandar for Ronin. So why not a similar arrangement struck with the Dark Elves? Or anything that shows Thanos to not be completely irrelevant to what’s going on? Again, possibly all through The Other, who even really could have been at the site where Johann Schmidt (Red Skull) discovered the Tesseract in Captain America: The First Avenger. A good way to keep Thanos related without actually having him directly appear all the time. And have a similar deal: give Thanos the Tesseract and Thanos will aid HYDRA in taking over the world.
Or, to keep the plot more in line with the movie, Thanos will show Schmidt how to utilise the Infinity Stone to power his weapons and technology and then further reverse engineer its capabilities (which Howard and later Tony Stark actually did in the form of the arc reactor) in exchange for the Stone itself. The plot then unfolds the same way, with the Tesseract eventually lost and recovered by Howard and HYDRA rebuilding itself within S.H.I.E.L.D., except that they would be after the Tesseract on behalf of Thanos as well as serving their own agenda. Speaking of which, the big turning point in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, HYDRA’s cancerous unveiling after 70 years of dormancy (more or less). As Honest Trailers pointed out, this has a plot hole or two in itself.
Namely with the Avengers themselves, and why exactly HYDRA made no effort to impede or hijack this idea in any way whatsoever. Jasper Sitwell, who was revealed as a HYDRA mole in Winter Soldier, even worked with Coulson in making sure that the Abomination wasn’t recruited for The Avengers Initiative, as shown in Marvel’s one-shot The Consultant. As well as choosing not to execute those two thieves in the Item 47 one-shot after recovering the eponymous weapon but recruit them for S.H.I.E.L.D. instead, even though it was highly improbable that they could be brainwashed in time for Project Insight in Winter Soldier. Tony’s tracking program that JARVIS ran on the helicarrier in The Avengers also came up conspicuously short in anything HYDRA related, despite the “soon we’ll have every dirty secret that S.H.I.E.L.D. has ever tried to hide” line from Tony.
Evidently not. The problem is that this then smacks of pulling an admittedly amazing story idea out of thin air simply because it’s awesome, not because it fits, when ideally a story idea should be both. Leading to now three major behind-the-scenes villains: HYDRA, The Ten Rings, and Thanos. This is where it’s starting to get sporadic. New villains and plots introduced at the drop of a hat because they’re cool, not because they’re cool and they fit with the current arc. Because what you have now is (on Earth) two very powerful, dangerous, resourced, organised, and far-reaching entities operating completely separately from each other with no sign of contact or overlap at all. And The Ten Rings is not exactly restricted to the Middle East or South East Asia or anywhere remote at all either, as shown in the one-shot All Hail the King with the radicalised reporter Jackson Norris.
It would be different if they were connected somehow, say through Anton Vanko, Ivan’s (Whiplash) father from Iron Man 2, who was deported back to the USSR by Howard Stark after trying to profit off of one of their inventions. If The Ten Rings can access any materials that they need to create weapons, which was shown in Iron Man 1 when a cell of theirs tried to force Tony to build his Jericho Missiles for them and he instead took advantage of their non-tech savvy grunt status to build an arc reactor powered Iron Man prototype suit instead, then they could have been behind helping Ivan build another arc reactor. Anton’s working with Stark would have put him in HYDRA’s crosshairs as well, leading them to take advantage of Anton’s separation from the rest of S.H.I.E.L.D. to continue research into advanced weapons and technology elsewhere.
And there you have it, HYDRA and The Ten Rings working together for mutual benefit, giving a plausible explanation for why the two organisations are so vast to the point of being global in the modern day events. It evens things up nicely as well, with HYDRA working behind the scenes in the Western world and The Ten Rings working behind the scenes in the East. And ultimately, following the chain back far enough, it all ties into Thanos and his interfering to begin with. This would be a tighter focus, instead of a plot that keeps sprawling further and further out, as now the new Marvel series Agent Carter has decided to introduce yet another larger villain in the form of Leviathan, as well as presumably the Zodiac person or persons unknown in the one-shot Agent Carter (how the filing system must work in Marvel studios is perhaps the bigger mystery still).
This is after the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. series kept such a tight focus initially, what with the Clairvoyant being the HYDRA mole John Garrett and then Daniel Whitehall (also HYDRA) taking over as the series main villain. But then, Joss Whedon was in charge of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., so tight focus is to be expected. And maybe Leviathan and Zodiac turn out to be HYDRA all along anyway, we don’t know yet. All I’m saying is that it seems like the MCU is starting to scatter out a little too much without pause for thought. One final thought is with Guardians of the Galaxy, easily one of Marvel’s best, up there with Winter Soldier and Iron Man 1. However, again, Thanos, and his complete inability to move from the three square feet of his chair. Already he’s starting to seem like he’s incapable to the point of incompetence as a villain, what with so far having gained no Infinity Stones and possibly even losing one in the process if indeed Loki’s sceptre carried the Mind Gemstone.
And now you have him being openly betrayed not once, not twice, but three times in the course of a single movie. One of which was to his face no less. Granted, Ronin is a fairly big deal unto himself and he did have the Infinity Stone in his possession at the time but still, Thanos seems to struggle to gain any respect, even from his own adopted daughters. And this is supposed to be the big bad of the MCU? Hardly. The only time Thanos has had a real hand in anything is when he gave the Chitauri armada to Loki in exchange for retrieving the Tesseract. Which the Avengers then completely annihilated and saw safely secured in the vaults of Asgard respectively, as well as Loki himself imprisoned there. Thanos then standing up to grin about it after being told about the complete ruination of his plans does not then magically change the fact that he’s achieved a grand total of f***-all either.
Marvel has done an amazing job in creating this massive narrative arc across multiple mediums, but neutering their main villain while conjuring half-a-dozen unconnected more does not for good storytelling make. Even if Thanos had only been tangentially involved in the havoc wrought by HYDRA and the Dark Elves, it would better serve to set him up as a proper threatening overarching villain, and by extension thread their plotlines more cohesively together, than simply having him sit around in that chair all day while occasionally stretching his legs to grin about something that’s more or less literally just blown up in his face. It would also help to explain how so much of Phase One managed to occur within a single week (according to the tie-in comic Fury’s Big Week) as well, if Obidiah Stane (The Iron Monger) of Iron Man 1 and/or General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross of The Incredible Hulk were also secretly HYDRA for instance, and their plans were all part of one large clandestine mobilisation. But we can but dream.